College of Arts & Sciences

College of Arts & Sciences

What's News

  A Curator Shares His "Home"
  Professors Sound Off on Political Blog
  UW Undergrads Discover More Than 1,300 Asteroids
  Henry Art Gallery Names New Director
  A UW Donor by Age Three
  With Sage Software, Mathematics is Within Reach


A Curator Shares His "Home"

When UW student Miles R. Miller was recently asked to serve as co-curator for an exhibit at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, it was like coming full circle.

  Child looking at bones
Miles Miller with a hooded Native American coat or "capote" made of smoked deer skin and glass beads. Photo by Mary Levin.

Miller is a member of the Yakama Nation and also of Nez Perce descent.
His assignment, as co-curator with Burke curator emeritus James Nason, was to
create an exhibition of Native American objects from Washington State’s Plateau region—essentially Miller’s hometown.

The show dovetails with another exhibition, Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915, concurrently on display at the Burke.

The photos by Lee Moorhouse, an amateur photographer and agent of the Umatilla reservation, document a transitory period in Pacific Northwest culture, from frontier life to the modern era. Miller’s companion exhibit, This Place Called Home, brings to life some of the materials in the photographs. The exhibit focuses on three Plateau tribes—Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce—in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. All of the objects, from beadwork to clothing to saddles and blankets, are from the Burke’s collection.

Miller, a second-year graduate student in the UW’s Museology Program, was
introduced to museum work as an intern at the Yakama Nation Museum. He was
later chosen for a coveted summer internship at the Smithsonian Institution.

“I loved it,” Miller recalls. “I loved being in the collection and researching the purpose of objects, their possible origins, and the dyes used. That’s when I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

In his first year in the Museology Program, Miller worked in the Burke Museum’s archaeology collection. This exhibition has been his first opportunity to explore the museum’s Native American collection.

Kids look at an animal skeleton with a UW student.  
This photo of members of the Walla Walla tribe was taken by Lee Moorhouse in 1903.  

Miller’s selections for This Place Called Home were influenced by the clothing and objects in Moorhouse’s photos but also by the Burke’s holdings. “I had to look carefully at each of the objects to make sure they are in stable condition,” Miller explains. “One particular piece, a beautiful dentalium shell dress, was so fragile that I pulled it from the selection process early. Oh, and it broke my heart to see it in such bad condition.”

In all, Miller selected 53 objects, 10 from the museum’s archaeology collection and 43 from its ethnographic collection. The exhibition also includes a video of tribal elders and artists discussing the exhibition’s photographs and objects, including some of their own family heirlooms.

“I hope that this show piques visitors’ interest in learning more about the Plateau culture of Eastern Washington,” says Miller. “This exhibit means more to me than ‘we are still here.’ It’s about tradition, it’s about memory and how artists are taught and continue to teach visual expressions of the Columbia Plateau— this place I call home.”

The exhibit runs through June 8, 2008. For more information, visit www.burkemuseum.org.


Professors Sound Off on Political Blog

Want to hear the latest on the presidential election from local experts? That’s the idea behind UW Professors on Politics, a web-site created by UW News & Information, working with professors in political science and related fields. The site was initially created before the 2004 presidential election. At that time, it was just a list of UW election experts. The new version includes a political blog.

“We observed the growing interest in political blogs, realizing that if we wanted UW faculty expertise to become part of the blogosphere, the best way was to start our own blog,” explains Bob Roseth, director of UW News & Information. Ken Fine, web developer for News & Information, designed and implemented the website.

Contributors to the blog must be faculty members; they are encouraged to write on whatever strikes them about the political scene. The blog was launched in January, with early entries covering everything from the Latino vote to political deliberation to crony capitalism.

To encourage response, a comment box is included at the end of each post.

The UW Professors on Politics blog can be found at http://blogs.uwnews.org/politics/. It can also be accessed from the UW home page (http://www.washington.edu) by clicking on “News,” then scrolling the left side of the UW News page.

Adapted from an article in University Week, January 31, 2008.


UW Undergrads Discover More Than 1,300 Asteroids

Undergraduate astronomy students at the UW, combing through images from a specialized telescope, have discovered more than 1,300 asteroids that had never before been observed. That is about one out of every 250 known objects in the solar system.

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Professor Andrew Becker (second from left) is joined by students who discovered 1,300 asteroids. They are (from left) A.J. Singh, Kenza Arraki, Kathryn Smith, and Amy Rose. Amber Almy is not pictured. Photo by Mary Levin.

The five students began the research in 2005 as part of the UW Pre-Major in Astronomy Program (Pre-MAP), which aims to increase diversity in the sciences by allowing freshmen and sophomores to begin doing research while still determining their majors.

The students set out to find exploding stars outside our solar system, but their efforts were quickly sidetracked.

“We started searching for supernovae using data from the second phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and all these asteroids were in the way,” recalls Andrew Becker, research assistant professor of astronomy and research adviser to Pre-MAP. “We decided that rather than get frustrated by the asteroids, we should note details about our observations. I kept asking the students what they had found and they kept saying, ‘More asteroids. No supernovae, but lots of asteroids.’”

The undergraduates—Amy Rose, Amber Almy, Amanjot Singh, Kenza Arraki, and Kathryn Smith—made the discoveries in 2005 and 2006. The findings were submitted to the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University for verification, and the center has given each asteroid a preliminary designation. If enough data are gathered during a three-year period, each asteroid can be named by its initial discoverer.

The students recorded data on the asteroids’ orbits and colors, which are
important because asteroids of similar color and orbit are likely made of the same material and possibly came from a single larger body that was broken up by a collision in space millions of years ago.

Eric Agol, assistant professor of astronomy and faculty adviser to Pre-MAP, says the observations could help trace the history of some space bodies, particularly
in the asteroid belt. It is significant, he says, that the undergraduates have found
so many asteroids to add to the catalog of about 335,000 known bodies in the solar system.

Besides discovering asteroids, the students observed and added information for more than 14,000 asteroids that were already known. Of all the asteroids they observed, only one has a path that crosses Earth’s orbit.

“There’s no immediate danger,” assures Becker, “but anything that crosses Earth’s orbit could, in a hundred, a thousand, a million years, crash into us if we reach the same point at the same time.”


Henry Art Gallery Names New Director

Sylvia Wolf, currently adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in
New York, has been named director of the Henry Art Gallery. She will begin her
appointment April 14.

Kids look at an animal skeleton with a UW student.  
Sylvia Wolf  

Wolf has been with the Whitney for eight years, first as endowed chair and head
of the Department of Photography and, since 2004, as adjunct curator. Prior to
joining the Whitney, she spent 12 years at The Art Institute of Chicago, where she produced more than 25 exhibitions.

Wolf has authored more than a dozen books on contemporary art and photography; she also has taught studio, art history, and museum studies courses at the graduate and undergraduate level for more than 15 years. Most recently, she has served as professor in the M.A. program for curatorial studies at Columbia University, as adjunct professor in art history at New York University’s Tisch School of Art, and as visiting professor at the School of Visual Arts, New York.

Bill True, co-chair of the search committee, describes Wolf as “a perfect match” for the Henry and the UW, given her extensive background in museum work and academia.

Wolf will succeed Richard Andrews, who is leaving the Henry after 20 years. Under Andrews’ leadership, the Henry underwent a massive renovation and expansion, and its endowment grew from less than $400,000 to $10 million.


A UW Donor by Age Three

Brianna and Zoe McGrath may be the University’s youngest donors. At ages 8 and 5 respectively, they’ve already been making gifts to the Chamber Dance Company (CDC)—part of the UW Dance Program— for several years.

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Brianna McGrath (left, with sister Zoe and Hannah Wiley, professor of dance and director of the Chamber Dance Company) made her first gift to the Dance Program at age three. She and her sister continue to give. Photo by Pam McGrath.

Brianna was introduced to dance as a toddler when her mother, Pam McGrath, served as manager of CDC. Pam would occasionally bring Brianna to campus with her, where the youngster would be surrounded by dancers. “She would go to some of the rehearsals and watch,” says Pam, now working in the UW’s Michael G. Foster School of Business. “All of the dancers knew her.”

While Brianna could not attend CDC performances as a toddler—audience members must be at least five years old—she was able to attend dress rehearsals. She found them mesmerizing.

“During one performance with a male and female dancer, she leaned over to me and said, ‘She’s like Barbie. You be Ken and I’ll be Barbie,’” recalls McGrath. “So we’d go home and practice that part of the dance.”

Younger sister Zoe also responded to CDC’s performances—even before she was born. “During one peformance, Zoe started moving to the dance in utero,” says McGrath. “It was bizarre.”

When Brianna was three, she saw a printed program for a CDC concert and asked her mother about it. Pam pointed out her own name among a list of donors in the program and explained that she gave money to CDC so that more people could see dance. That got Brianna thinking.

“The next time we were counting out her piggybank, Brianna said, ‘Can I help the dancers?’” recalls McGrath. “I told her that I would match whatever she wanted
to give.”

First Brianna decided on $1, then upped it to $2, which Pam matched. But as they headed to campus to deliver the gift to Hannah Wiley, professor of dance and CDC director, Brianna admitted that she sneaked in one more dollar from her piggybank.
When she handed Wiley the envelope with the donation, Brianna “was jumping around saying ‘It’s for the dancers!’” says Pam. “Hannah and I began tearing up.”

Since that first gift at age three, Brianna has contributed to CDC each time she counts out the money from her piggybank. Zoe began following suit last year, at age four.

“This is something tangible to them, where they can see the results,” says Pam. “It’s exciting for them to see their names listed in the Dance Program newsletter and to receive thank you notes. They realize that, through their gifts, they are helping put on CDC performances and making it possible for more people to see dance.”


With Sage Software, Mathematics is Within Reach

Until recently, a student solving a calculus problem, a physicist modeling a galaxy, or
a mathematician studying a complex equation had to use powerful computer
programs that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. But now a software tool called Sage, based at the UW, allows them to make such calculations for free. Sage won first prize in the scientific software division of Les Trophées du Libre, an international
competition for free software.

Kids look at an animal skeleton with a UW student.  
An international team working on Sage is led by William Stein (seated on the left). Here he is surrounded by UW undergraduate and graduate students who are helping to develop the free software. Photo by Mary Levin.  

Sage and its developers faced initial skepticism from the mathematics and education communities. “I’ve had a surprisingly large number of people tell me that something like Sage couldn’t be done— that it just wasn’t possible,” says William Stein, associate professor of mathematics and lead developer of the tool. “I’m hearing that less now.”

With open-source software like Sage, the program and all its underlying code is distributed for free. Open-source software is increasingly used in everyday applications, but until recently there was no such software for mathematics. Over the past three years, more than 100 mathematicians from around the world have worked with Stein to build a user-friendly tool that combines powerful number-crunching with new features, such as collaborative online worksheets.

“A lot of people have said: ‘Wow, I’ve been waiting forever for something like this,’” Stein says. “People are excited about it.”

Sage can take the place of commercial software commonly used in mathematics education, in large government laboratories, and in math-intensive research. The program can do anything from mapping a 12-dimensional object to calculating rainfall patterns under global warming.

Stein’s impetus for developing Sage was his growing dissatisfaction with existing mathematical software. He explains that the big commercial programs—Matlab, Maple, Mathematica, and Magma —charge license fees that can run thousands of dollars. And those commercial programs don’t always reveal how the calculations are performed. This means that other mathematicians can’t scrutinize the code to see how a computer-based calculation arrived at a result.

“Not being able to check the code of a computer-based calculation is like not publishing proofs for a mathematical theorem,” Stein says. “It’s ludicrous.”

So in 2005, Stein began a year and a half of frenzied work in which he created the Sage prototype, combining decades’ worth of more specialized free mathematical software and filling in the gaps.

“I didn’t sleep much for a year,” admits Stein. “Now I’ve relaxed. There are a lot more people helping out.”

A team of five UW undergraduate students now works part-time on the code, with grant support from the National Science Foundation. And through “Sage days”—regular meetings held in various international locations—volunteer developers work on the software. Other developers contribute through Sage’s online discussion boards.

“I think our software can be better than the commercial versions,” says Stein. “I really want it to be the best mathematical software in the world.”

For more information about Sage, visit www.sagemath.org.


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